Rafa regrets Mikel, Moses’ departure for Nations Cup

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Chelsea will be affected by the departure of its 2 key players, John Mikel Obi and Victor Moses, for the South Africa 2013 Nations Cup. Both players have been called up by Nigeria and, with David Luiz capably filling the void created by Mikel, it is the 22-year-old winger whose absence will be more keenly felt.

When he was prised from Wigan for a fee in the region of £9m in the summer, few believed Moses’ mid-season departure would be a cause for any real concern. Chelsea had got its key business done early in the window, securing Lille golden boy, Eden Hazard and International wonderkid, Oscar. Anyone else, it was assumed, had arrived merely to provide additional bodies and fresh legs. Many observers – this one included – feared Moses’ burgeoning talent could be stifled by the fierce competition for places at Stamford Bridge, following in the sullen footsteps of Scott Parker, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Lassana Diarra, and for a while it seemed to be coming to pass.

Roberto Di Matteo valued Moses, but it was clear he was seen as an impact substitute, a more muscular and powerful Plan B on hand in case the sublime trio of Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata, produced less than their sensational best. Make an impact he did, scoring a crucial injury-time winner against Shakhtar Donetsk, but it was clear his starting opportunities would be limited. But if a Chelsea player finds himself out of favour with his manager, he will invariably get another chance when the next one comes along.

Di Matteo left, Benitez arrived, and Moses was duly catapulted onto centre stage. He has since featured in 12 of the Spaniard’s 13 games in charge, making nine starts. The 22-year-old possesses a different set of skills from most of Chelsea’s other attacking players. He combines pace, flair and technical skill with a height, strength and directness in stark contrast to the likes of Mata, Hazard, Oscar and Marko Marin. Under Di Matteo, the differences prevented him breaking into the team. Under Benitez, they have made him virtually indispensable.

Believing his predecessor’s orgy of number 10s to favour beauty over practicality, Benitez routinely sacrifices one of his creative wizards, instead asking Moses to provide the width and true wingplay his team-mates are either unwilling to offer or simply incapable of delivering. Oscar is generally the man relegated to the bench but, even when Mata or Hazard are rested, Moses remains the constant. To attribute his rapid recent rise solely to a change of manager would be unfair, however. For Moses has also significantly improved his game in almost all areas – passing, dribbling, heading, positioning, general awareness and, most noticeably, his finishing.

His final season at Wigan yielded six goals. This term he already has five, including brilliantly clinical strikes against Leeds and Southampton. As far as Benitez and his Chelsea team-mates are concerned, Moses will be missed. “You can always improve things, especially when you have injuries, and we lose two players to the African Cup of Nations,” the Blues’ boss told reporters last Wednesday. He knows he does not possess another player who can offer him what the 22-year-old can.

Whether Roman Abramovich decides to grant his interim manager any further reinforcements in January is an intriguing question. For now, Benitez will have to make do with Ba, and the early signs are the Senegalese striker will do his best to make the interim as painless as possible.

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